For the first time ever, individual Iowans may be able to caucus twice, with both the Democrats and the Republicans, next January. If the current schedule holds, the two parties will meet on different dates.
The scheduling conflict between Democrats and Republicans is yet another difficulty for Iowa's effort to keep its first in the nation status for 2016.
Since May 18, Democrats and Republicans have both had official, and different, caucus dates for 2014. True, the presidential race isn't at stake. But in all other previous off-years, the two parties have carefully coordinated the same date, and only the simultaneous scheduling has stood in the way of people attending both caucuses.
In addition to the dangerous precedent, a lot is at stake just in 2014. Both parties are looking at major races - the Republican Senate race and the Democratic race in the 1st Congressional District - that could be decided at conventions. The delegates to those conventions are chosen in a process that begins at the caucuses, currently scheduled for Tuesday, January 21 for Democrats and Saturday, January 25 for Republicans. And control of the Republican party structure itself, which went to a Ron Paul dominated faction after the 2012 caucuses, is also at stake.
That change in Republican control is what has led to the present scheduling conflict. On April 6, the Republican state central committee met and scheduled their 2014 caucuses for Saturday, January 25. This was news to the Democrats. Traditionally, the two party chairs have coordinated their caucus date efforts, as Democrat Sue Dvorsky and Republican Matt Strawn did multiple times during 2011 as other states tried to leapfrog earlier in the process.
But new Republican chair A.J. Spiker, who took over after Strawn was booted following the caucus night counting controversy, made no such effort to check in with then-Democratic chair Tyler Olson (who has since resigned to run for governor) before rapidly making the date official. This left Democrats in a jam.
The two parties, in part responding to Hillary Clinton's 2007 criticism of the weeknight caucus tradition, experimented with a weekend caucus for the 2010 off-year cycle. On the Democratic side, this drew complaints from the Jewish community.
"Saturday caucuses are bad for organizing since they have such poor attendance and as you know it disenfranchises folks from the Jewish community," said IDP executive director Troy Price. "These are lessons we learned in 2010, and at that time both parties said we would not do a Saturday again." But that prior informal commitment was apparently non-binding on the new Republican leadership.
The Democratic state central committee next met on May 18 in Ft. Dodge, and scheduled the 2014 caucuses for Tuesday, January 21. The traditional caucus night had been Monday. But that tradition was broken in 2008 when, to stay ahead of New Hampshire and in calendar 2008, both parties met on Thursday, January 3. In addition, Monday, January 20, 2014 is the Martin Luther King holiday. African-Americans and other civil rights activists were unhappy that the caucuses landed on MLK Day in 2004 and again in the 2006 off-year cycle.
As of now, Democratic staff, at least, appear committed to a non-Saturday date. "It is unfortunate the Republicans put us in this position," said Price. "The Saturday caucus date is all about their internal politics. Quite frankly, I hope this is not a problem and we will continue to reach out to them to try and get them to move."
But those hopes may be misplaced. Saturday, the Republican state central committee met again and moved their convention date back a month to July 12, in anticipation of an inconclusive Senate primary. If no candidate wins over 35%, this convention will choose the nominee.
"Since when does the state party gear its convention around a possible nominating battle, 10 months before the primary?" wrote Kevin Hall of TheIowaRepublican:
This is a terrible decision … For one, since newly elected (state central committee) members take control after the state convention, this decision gives the current regime another month in power."Yes, Big Liberty, I’m looking at you," Hall concludes, using the label he and many non-Paul Republicans apply to Spiker and the current party structure.
More significantly, it could extend the Republican U.S. Senate primary race an extra month. Not only would this delay give the Golden Child Bruce Braley an easier path to victory. It would also give campaigns, and certain groups, more time to organize their delegates.
But Spiker appears deaf to the criticism of the convention move that has come from the state's highest ranking Republican officials, Governor Terry Branstad and Senator Chuck Grassley.
@idaveprice @TerryBranstad @TimAlbrechtIA @ChuckGrassley look forward to hearing a suggested date after canvas windowSpiker is referring to a 27 day window for the Secretary of State to complete the canvass (official result certification) of the June 3 primary.
— AJ Spiker (@AJSpiker) August 26, 2013
So that's how Spiker deals with his fellow Republicans. How is he likely to respond to pleas from Democrats about moving off the caucus date he prefers?
After a long absence, I started attending Republican events again in mid-2007 and have been to many since. Invariably there's a prayer near the beginning, and almost invariably it concludes with the Christian-specific "in Jesus' Name." So Democrats are expecting Republicans to move their date out of Jewish religious concerns. Good luck with that.
So what happens if the two parties stay with their different dates?
Caucus 101 time. The caucuses are not elections run by county auditors and staffed by paid poll workers. They are party meetings run by the parties and staffed by volunteers. There aren't the same checks and balances there are in an election. The plain, simple, historic way to keep people from going to both caucuses was making it physically impossible by holding them at the same time.
"(Democratic chair Scott Brennan) and I are researching the law around this and we will work with the Republicans to put rules in place to stop people from participating in both," says Price. But the Democrats are in the weaker position because under the present schedule they go first.
I've been co-chairing my county's credentials committee since 1996. Producing the list of delegates, let alone all attendees, is time consuming tedious work. I'm usually rushed to get just the delegates together in two weeks. The only sure-fire way to keep people from going to two caucuses, given the present schedule, is to 1) complete the work of checking off all the attendees between Tuesday late night and early Saturday; 2) give your valuable proprietary caucus attendance data to the other party and 3) trust the other party on Saturday to exclude people who'd attended your caucus on Tuesday.
And what happens if you, in "good conscience," change your mind after your platform resolution fails Tuesday night? It's up to the Republicans to seat you or not, and the Democrats can't un-seat you after the fact.
This is bad for First In The Nation. Really bad. And understand that it's entirely the Republican Party's fault, for not honoring the great tradition of bipartisanship that surrounds the caucuses and Iowa's special role.
Perhaps next year a more reasonable, cooperative group of Republicans will take the party reins. But that's too late for 2014, and there's no reason to expect the Spiker-led, Paul-dominated party to change their date. Even though they should. The Democrats will ask, as they should, but will likely get turned down.
That leaves two bad choices. The Saturday date creates an appearance of insensitivity, and the Jewish community will rightly deserve an apology since the current batch of Iowa Republicans are not honoring a promise their predecessors made.
But the possibility that people can vote twice cuts at the very integrity of the caucus process. If the Republicans refuse to move dates, perhaps Democrats can fall back to a compromise on time: a post-sunset start that does not break the Sabbath. However, if that fails, the only option that protects the caucuses' integrity is for Democrats to accept, with reluctance, the Republican-imposed schedule.